iTuning Out DRM

iTunesA bit of back-of-the-envelope math shows that it’ll cost me something like US$60 to upgrade all of my iTunes music purchases to the DRM-free iTunes Plus format. I know, I know. A lot of folks out there will wag a finger and say I should’ve stayed away from buying rights-crippled songs in the first place.

In my defense, I was always skeptical of the iTunes Store and, like the old fogey I am, tried to buy physical compact discs whenever I could. But there was a period of two or three years there when well-meaning people in my life kept giving me iTunes Store gift cards. Of course, as we’re all learning even if we hadn’t realized it before, gift cards are a kind of trap, so it was unavoidable that I eventually accrued a stash of the iTunes Store’s hobbled tracks, in spite of my efforts.

Somewhat understandably then, the upgrade fee burns me a bit. This is mostly because of the way songs from the iTunes Store are limited — in an additive method, not a subtractive method. I pejoratively regard DRM’d goods as broken, but not in that the goods are missing anything. The core of what I need is there; it’s just that there’s an extra layer of restrictions added. All Apple has to do is help me remove the offending code, rather than trade the tracks back in for new ones. As various pirate projects have proven in the past, this is entirely doable so long as DRM cops don’t stand in the way.

Free at Last, Fee at Last

Looking further ahead, in order to protect my investment it seems as if I may have to upgrade these tracks, eventually. The key to DRM as Apple implemented it is that it’s centralized; for the tracks to play Apple must continue to operate its authentication service. Now that the company is clearly moving away from DRM, how long can I expect it to maintain that service? Over time, it will inevitably become less and less profitable and more and more of an annoyance to the good folks in Cupertino. And like any network-enabled service, especially one with virtually no revenue growth on its roadmap, it’s susceptible to being shut down at any given point in time.

Of course, I could wait it out and see if, after a few years when Apple tires of supporting these tracks, the company makes some close-out offer of reduced-price upgrades before turning off the lights. But since most of the songs I’ve bought are not from the ‘front catalog,’ it grates me even more that new customers are buying the same songs today for the new, reduced ‘back catalog’ price of US$0.69 each — and getting more usage rights than I got at US$0.99.

As a compromise, I think Apple should offer some threshold at which their per-track upgrade pricing becomes flat pricing. If your upgrade bill amounts to more than say US$20, I say Apple should just let you upgrade your whole library for that total without continuing to rack up per-track fees. The only serious cost involved here is the bandwidth necessary to transfer the tracks, but I’m guessing that’s negligible for Apple beyond US$20 or so. Oh, and there’s the cost that major label recording companies insist on collecting anytime their customers do anything at all with the music they’ve bought. There’s always that.

  1. I agree with you on the fairness side of this, but I suspect Apple would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the labels in order to effectuate a free update to DRM-free music.

    When Walmart* (Wal*mart?) and MSN Music said they were pulling their authentication servers for future new system music enabling I thought, geez, it might cost them a million bucks or so to feed out DRM-free versions of what they’ve sold. They were going DRM free because they’d sold so few songs in DRM format. It was their differentiator.

    For Apple, it’s real money! Not that they shouldn’t do it, but I don’t believe they’re in a revenue-neutral position to make it happen.

  2. I used to work at a record label and although I’m not 100% positive this is the reason, I would speculate that Apple is not making any money here.

    The fee is probably because Apple is required to collect a “mechanical” royalty for distributing the file (though this ignores your point about the potential of a DRM-stripping utility). Mechanicals get paid on every unit, and downloading a new file probably counts.

  3. The biggest issue for me is that Apple demands a complete upgrade of the iTunes library — no option to go track-by-track. I’d be happy to pay a little extra for the songs I really want, but they’re forcing us to include everything. My tab under that system is about $80, including individual songs I downloaded on a whim and don’t really care much about now.

    I could delete those tracks, sure, but why should I have to? It seems pretty shortsighted.

  4. My bill was/is over $100, and I’m not alone. I’ve seen other people with bills of $100+. The average seems to be about $25 or so.

    What’s terrible is that the AAC files you get with iTunes Plus tracks aren’t even traditional non-DRMed AAC files. They’re still “wrapped” in some code (likely with your account info or something).

    This pops up a few times, most noticeably (for me) when Rivet cannot play iTunes Plus songs on the Xbox 360 because the Xbox, despite being able to play AAC files, does not recognize iTunes Plus songs as AAC due to the wrapper.

    And to get back to the upgrade price burning, heck yeah it does. It’s not like the tracks all cost $0.30 more now. We will have paid $1.29 now for those tracks. I don’t buy any bandwidth arguments either – it’s a drop in the bucket. Most people will use far more bandwidth downloading those two iLife videos (if they choose) than their new songs.

  5. I understand the feeling, but I guess I don’t share it. To upgrade my library it would cost $229 — that’s for just the tracks I purchased after the Hymn project ceased operations. I didn’t heed any warnings about DRM, mostly because I didn’t mind being “locked in” to the iTunes Way.

    Maybe someday I’ll pay to “upgrade” my tracks. I doubt it. Should the day come when I’m forced to, I’m optimistic, like you, that Apple will provide some sort of discounted rate.

    As for your suggested compromised, I’m all for it. Apple may not get $229 from me, but they could get $20, $30 or even $50 if they asked.

  6. Agreed, the > $100 bill to upgrade does chafe.

    However, to help me feel better about this, I remind myself that I’m getting songs encoded at twice the bit rate (256kbps AAC vs. the old 128kbps).

  7. There’s another possibility that occurred to me this morning, too: it’s not inconceivable that Apple will adopt a new position of benign neglect when it comes to tools like the aforementioned Hymn Project. Presumably there’s less pressure and incentive for them to really enforce their DRM policy on tracks already bought when very soon practically everything is going to DRM-free anyway. Fingers crossed.

  8. FYI – There is an “Upgrade to iTunes Plus” link in the “Quick Links” area of the iTunes Store home page that will calculate exactly how much the upgrade will cost.

  9. @Adam et al: the tool you’re looking for is called Requiem and is available from that infamous buccaneering torrent site. I’ve used it in the past and the software works as expected, though unfortunately it doesn’t function with iTunes v8.02 yet, so if you keep your applications up to date you’re unfortunately out of luck until Brahms provides an update.

  10. Neal S will eventually discover the sad truth that it’s even worse: The upgrade fee isn’t for all the music (and videos) you have – it’s for all the music (and videos) you’ve ever bought.

    The fee is assessed against your purchase history.

    Even if you bought an album and decided you hated it and deleted the whole thing, you still must pay to upgrade it to be allowed to upgrade ANY of the music you bought.

    Very bad, and very un-Apple. I can’t believe there’s not more of an uproar over this all-or-nothing policy.

  11. DRM isn’t leaving the iTunes Store—it’s still very much a part of purchased TV shows and movies, especially the movie rentals.

    “What’s terrible is that the AAC files you get with iTunes Plus tracks aren’t even traditional non-DRMed AAC files. They’re still “wrapped” in some code (likely with your account info or something).”

    There’s no special wrapper containing that information beyond standard AAC “wrapper”—that information is stored in AAC atoms (metadata). The atoms themselves may or may not be nonstandard (haven’t looked), but the ability to add this kind of metadata to an AAC is a part of the standard.

  12. @Julian: The pinf atom seems to be the culprit.

    The iTunes Plus tracks have it as a sibling whereas files created from QuickTime have it as a child of the ESDS atom. It looks like the change was done on purpose. The tracks supposedly change from “Purchased AAC Audio File” to “AAC Audio File” in iTunes when fixing that. This is based on, for example:

    iTunes Plus is a Negative on the N95?
    PutPinfInItsPlace: An iTunes Plus fixer for Nokia mobile phones

    I haven’t tried the tool offered yet and can’t vouch for its efficacy.

  13. I found the solution. NoteBurner is a $40 program (Mac OS X and Windows versions) that acts as a virtual CD burner, and lets you burn and rip content via iTunes. There’s a trial version that only processes some of the songs, but it’s useful for testing. It worked fine for me in a test I performed last night.

    Normally, I might have some concern about programs like this, but it performs a perfectly legitimate function, just without inconvenient physical material, instead of cracking FairPlay and thus invoking the spectre of the dread DMCA.

  14. Ah, that’s interesting. I’m not sure a US$40 application makes that much sense for me, since my total upgrade bill isn’t that much more money than that. Still, it’s an intriguing concept.

    One question I couldn’t answer after a cursory look at the NoteBurner page, though, is whether or not it’s a lossy process to rip MP3s from ‘virtually burned’ CDs. I imagine the answer is yes.

  15. It can’t per se offer lossless ripping, because there’s some trans-encoding happening, even though CDs ostensibly use a higher-fidelity lossless standard. But I suspect that it might be hard to hear any artifacts. You’d be going from AAC (128 Kbps for protected, right?) to whatever CDs record in to AAC (whatever you choose). It’s possible that the encoding and re-encoding will insert something.

    There’s a test version, so you might find a precious piece of music that has lots of highs, lows, and quiet points, convert that at the best settings, and see. I haven’t figured out if it’s worth it since I have about $40 worth of upgrades now from Apple, and I might just convert.

  16. I am in no way a “DRM IS THE DEVIL” brow beater by any means, but I am really baffled by the comments in this thread. You purchased the music, knowing that it had DRM on it. Apple is offering DRM-free tracks (a product with a higher demand and therefore more value) for slightly more money, and offers to upgrade your tracks for the DIFFERENCE in the prices. In other words, you are out of pocket no more money than if you had purchased them that way in the first place. So what’s the problem? This actually seems pretty generous to me since they could have very easily just required you to buy them all over again in the first place.

    What is it about digital media that gives everyone some completely absurd sense of entitlement? If, during the tape to CD transition, you could take a tape in and get a CD copy for the difference in prices, we’d be falling all over ourselves talking about what a good deal that is. And since we’re talking about the value of an intangible concept (music), isn’t any “they’re taking something away, not adding something” a pretty arbitrary argument? You didn’t buy the bits, you bought the music. Clearly DRM free media has more demand, and is therefore more valuable. Would things be any different if DRM were an inherent technical requirement of music files and Apple just today discovered a way around it?

    If the cost is odious, don’t spend it. If your iTunes Plus upgrade fee is over $100, that means you’ve spent well over $300 on tracks from the iTunes music store, so clearly the DRM wasn’t a problem. I really don’t see what the fuss is about.

  17. @Grover: That’s a sort of Stockholm Syndrome response.

    Before digital media, when fidelity was lower and copying reduced fidelity, a combination of copyright law, practice, and court cases allowed us to move music around for personal purposes with no restrictions.

    When we buy music in digital form, we have not given up any of those rights. Rather, we have allowed law to be passed (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and practice to be established in which tacitly abandoned perfectly good rights in favor of music label intimidation, lawsuits, and contracts.

    Now the music labels have essentially given up on all their arguments and concerns, and allow the distribution of DRM-free music in which we ostensibly give up no rights for moving music around.

    Thus, it is hard to see why we should be adhering to a contractual term imposed on us in defiance of our statutory and de jure rights of personal use when the parties involved, excluding us, have entirely changed such terms.

    Given that we bought both the music and the rights to play the music, I don’t see a problem with making an argument that Apple is leaving its customers in a position where they cannot legally engage rights that are now available in precisely the same music in a different wrapper.

    “Clearly DRM free media has more demand, and is therefore more valuable”: Apple created a viable ecosystem in which the DRM mattered fairly little to most people. But that’s not the same as the DRM not mattering at all.

    Had Apple created an iPod and a terrible music store, or a great music store and a terrible iPod, DRM would have been a non-starter for them or the labels.

    The labels are only allowing DRM to be removed as a tool to remove Apple’s market hegemony, because they know that technology is no cure for illegal music sharing.

    I, in no way, support copyright violation.

  18. Grover, the difference in the price is $0.00. The songs were $0.99. They’re $0.99 now. iTunes Plus songs have been $0.99 for quite a long time and the $1.29 pricing for Plus tracks didn’t last that long (five months – June 2007 through October 2007).

    And of all the formerly-DRMed songs I have now, none were available via iTunes Plus at the time of purchase. It wasn’t an option.

    And Grover, I think part of the problem is that Apple’s not letting you pick and choose which songs you’d like to upgrade, willingly and happily for $0.30 apiece. It’s all or nothing. So if you want to upgrade 1/3 of your DRMed songs, you could say it’s basically costing you $0.90/track.

  19. Hey, Erik, even worse: Some songs (starting April 2009) will be priced as low a 69 cents. So you could wind up paying 99 cents for the song originally, then 30 cents to upgrade, or $1.29 for a 69 cent song.

    Grover/Erik/all: What’s tricky about this issue is that it’s not buyer’s remorse. I’m not suddenly mad that my 2007 MacBook has been supplanted by a 2008 MacBook. That’s life.

    Rather, these are bits, and the whole issue is about the consumer being dicked around the contractual, legal, lobbying, and regulatory activities of a handful of companies and congresspeople.

    And that issue is now dead from a market perspective. The market won: people want music without DRM; the labels couldn’t figure out how to run the market and have DRM involved. Great.

    So early adopters on hardware suffer because hardware has to be swapped out for newer devices, right? By why should the fungible product that is a song wind up having an industry tax applied?

    I have argued that Apple should go for the classy goodwill approach (especially as their hegemony is broken) and pay even hundreds of millions to redeem the DRM licenses for their customers. That will likely lead customers to spend hundreds of millions more with Apple than with other companies.

  20. Glenn, indeed that’s true, but I didn’t want to wade into that sticky stuff. I dread the first time I’ll see someone complaining about a song they paid $0.99 for being sold for $0.69… I deemed it worth $0.99, and sales (etc.) happens. No big deal to me.

    I get what you’re saying, as well, about the legalities. I think that may be the biggest point.

    I’ve heard two possible explanations for the $0.30/track charge (and none for the “all or nothing” approach).

    1) Bandwidth costs money. Though true, it costs nowhere near $0.30/5 MB, and I probably download more from Apple in a week (software updates, free video tutorials, movie trailers, etc.) than the entirety of my “upgradeable” music. In other words, I don’t buy that one for a second.

    2) Some sort of “distribution” cost assessed by the labels. Apple is distributing a “different” copy of the music or a different “form” of the music, and thus must pay a distribution fee. For all we know, it’s the same price as the original file and Apple is actually taking a hit on the $0.30 price.

    The second may or may be valid. I have no way of knowing.

    If I were to venture a guess as to why Apple has it “all or nothing,” it’d be:

    1) They’d lose (or at least not make) money processing $0.30 transactions. Maybe not even $0.60 transactions.

    2) They’re too lazy or it’s too late to add that capability to iTunes and the store.

    I suspect it’s a combination of both.

  21. One other thing to be aware of: that $100+ bill is just for the songs in your library that already have been released as DRM free. Pay it, convert a few hundred songs. Wait a few weeks. Apple adds more DRM music to their servers and you’ll have another $100 bill for conversion waiting for you.

    For anyone who has paid to upgrade your albums – create a smart album that lists “Protected AAC” songs. You should still have plenty of them.

    I have other a 1000 DRM songs in my iTunes library. That’s ~$300 to upgrade, yet my upgrade cost is only $110 or so. I expect to see that rise to the full $300 as Apple converts more of their library.

  22. I’m glad I never bought any tracks from iTunes. (minus some audiobooks) I think .99 is too much for a downloaded song, whether it has DRM or not. Most of the time, I can buy a physical CD for less, and I like the whole experience of getting the real deal – artwork, bonus dvd’s, etc.

  23. I think the upgrade fee is silly (and yet another ‘screw you’ to customers) and I’ve said as much even before the last remaining labels agreed to drop DRM. But, in Apple’s defense, I’m guessing the feed goes mostly to royalties (as Colin Mentioned) and possibly any associated bandwidth fees since the “upgraded” music is technically a higher kbps AAC file.

    I don’t know if Apple even tried to get a cheaper upgrade for us, but even if the broached the subject, it would’ve had to be the labels that gave the final say. And they still live in la la land.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.